Commentary

Pa. lawmakers must protect and expand our sacred right to vote | Opinion

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By Sandra L. Strauss

When the 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote in 1971, I could hardly wait to register and vote. I was among the first classes of 18-year-olds eligible, and I was NOT going to miss it for anything. I wanted to have a say in who could best represent what I stood for as a young adult.

Nearly 50 years later, I still believe in the importance of voting, and wouldn’t dream of missing an election. However, I know the right I have taken for granted as an educated, reasonably secure white woman is not equally accessible or easily attainable for many of my neighbors, despite Constitutional amendments and laws that are supposed to protect that right.

In the faith communities I represent, we believe that all persons have the sacred right to have a voice in government at all levels. That includes the right to vote.

And that access should never be limited because of situational factors such as economic disadvantages or distance, or demographic characteristics such as race, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation, disability, or sexual orientation. We also believe that voting is a sacred duty, and there should be no barriers that preclude exercising this responsibility.

We viewed Act 77 of 2019, the bipartisan voting reform bill passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly and signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, as a positive step.

It gave more Pennsylvanians easier access to voting. Voting by mail was a blessing for those who have found it difficult to get to the polls on election day—whether because of physical disability, lack of access to transportation, work schedules, obligations to children at home, or any other factor that would serve as an obstacle to voting in person.

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And it came just in time for the arrival of COVID-19. Pennsylvanians could still exercise their right to vote without risking exposure to a deadly virus.

With the introduction of vote-by-mail and despite a steep learning curve, the general election of 2020 proved to be the most secure election in recent history.

Virtually no irregularities surfaced anywhere, and courts found challenges to election integrity to be without merit. Recounts and audits in numerous places provided further proof that elections were clean. Election officials everywhere—regardless of political affiliation—deserve our thanks and admiration for their work in a particularly challenging year.

Yet here we are, less than two years after the enactment of Act 77, and some members of our General Assembly are seeking solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist.

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A Republican-authored reform bill, HB1300, is a 150-page bill that includes numerous changes that would adversely affect voting in Pennsylvania. A few proposals are particularly troubling.

The new Republican bill rolls back the positive changes of Act 77, returning the voter registration deadline to 30 days prior to an election, and moving the deadline for vote-by-mail applications from 7 to 15 days. In fact, we know that tens of thousands of new voters registered during the extended deadline period in October 2020.

But there’s more. Voter ID requirements for all elections have reappeared, and two forms of ID would be required to vote by mail. ID is always required for first time voters but having to maintain designated IDs is not easy for everyone and is cost prohibitive for many.

Use of dropboxes would be severely limited to only specified hours where two partisan inspectors would need to verify identification of the person dropping off a ballot and examine the ballot envelope.

Voters would no longer be able to go to a county election or satellite office to apply for and receive a mail-in ballot, vote immediately and leave it with officials.

Also, by designating these locations as polling places they would be required to permit the presence of observers. Signature verification for mail-in ballots would be required, but no provision for proper training to ensure that valid ballots are counted, or voters are provided opportunities to validate their signature.

Finally, it creates a Bureau of Election Audits in the office of the Auditor General, placing an audit function in the hands of a partisan elected official with no experience running elections.

Yet there are opportunities for positive changes. For example, county election officials have raised valid concerns that should be addressed—such as the pre-canvassing of mail-in ballots which allows them to be opened, verified, and prepared for counting when election day arrives.

These are changes that we can support.

Earlier I alluded to other sacred duties we hold beyond voting. We recognize that faithful citizen engagement in government includes seeking transparency and integrity within the halls of power in addition to economic and social justice. However, voting is critical to accomplishing these ends. Without changing the dynamics of power, achieving justice will be difficult if not impossible.

The Republican reform bill will be voted on in the House next week. It is incumbent upon all of us—not just people of faith—to inform our elected officials that access to voting for EVERY eligible citizen must not only be protected but expanded.

The Rev. Sandra L. Strauss is the Director of Advocacy & Ecumenical Outreach for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. For more information regarding the Council, please CLICK HERE

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